Kukla's Korner

Demographics, Not Hockey

With the Ice Edge group on the brink of purchasing the Phoenix Coyotes, small details have begun to be revealed about the fine print, such as apparent games in Saskatchewan, a retooled lease, and (currently denied) rumors of escape clauses to Quebec City or Winnipeg.

If this is the only way the NHL could get a buyer, then I suppose these concessions makes sense. Will Ice Edge give the team a genuine go in Glendale or will this be a true Major League scenario, where Shane Doan is traded for a player from the Slovakian prison system? (“I’ve never heard of half of these guys.” “This guy is dead!” “Cross him off the list then!”)

The thing is, as brutal as this season’s attendance has been for the Coyotes, it’s unfair to judge the market solely on that snapshot. During the Jeremy Roenick/Keith Tkachuk years, the team was actually doing decent at American West Arena—despite the obstructed view section in the upper deck. Years of putting out an awful product will have that impact on a market. (Even Canadian teams; see the 1995-96 Oilers attendance when the team went four years without making the playoffs.) What matters now is what happens after the team consistently wins.

In the 2003-04 season, the Coyotes averaged 15,467 fans. That’s not fantastic, but factor in the teams’ lack of success—they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2001-02 season. Since then, they’ve either finished last or second-to-last in their division. Would you pay money to see that?

Of course, it’s easy to say that the game would thrive in Hamilton or Winnipeg, at least from an attendance standpoint. But that’s probably not at the top of the league’s concern.

Here’s the real reason why the NHL is trying to make it work in Phoenix. It’s not because of Gary Bettman’s ego or some sort of stubborn manifest destiny by the Board of Governors. It’s certainly not due to public blustering about “not leaving fans.” It’s all about money—or the potential to make money. Phoenix is the 12th largest metropolitan area in the US, and the fifth most populous city. Phoenix is also only second to Las Vegas as the fastest-growing metro area since 2000. If the team can establish itself in a successful way, such as the way the Sharks have integrated into the Bay Area, it does more for the NHL’s big-picture business (a stronger national brand, more corporate sponsorship, more converted new fans and youth hockey) than plunking itself into a surefire win. If the league wasn’t already in Phoenix, I guarantee you it’d be near the top of the list for expansion because of those juicy demographics.

Think of it this way: if the Coyotes somehow manage to be a consistently strong team on the ice over the next decade and ownership is stable, does that do more to help the NHL brand than by going to Winnipeg or Quebec City? From a business perspective—not a hockey or fan perspective—the answer is yes, but it’s a gamble, and a hell of one at that. I’m guessing that the BoG (remember, the Board is comprised of the owners, not the GMs, so they’re business people) is thinking that the market hasn’t been given a true test yet. They did well early on but the team had a lousy arena; then they got the good arena but the team did horrible and ownership situation dragged the team through the gutter.

You can argue about Canadian traditions and where the game belongs and all that until you’re blue in the face; for better or worse, pro sports is run by businessmen. Granted, they’re not always the smartest businessmen, but they’ve got way more money than you or I do, so they must be doing something right. They’re thinking big picture here—a decade or two rather than a year or two.

Is it possible to repair this or is it better just to get up and go? Winning can solve just about anything, and there are about 7,000 - 10,000 people who used to regularly attend Coyotes games during the Roenick/Tkachuk era that may come back. If those people return and the team gets a stronger identity in the Phoenix area, you just might. But this isn’t the Charlie Sheen/Tom Berenger Cleveland Indians; this is a hockey brand that’s been critically wounded during the worst economic downturn in recent memory.

I suppose this Ice Edge purchase is then the best of both worlds. The NHL gets its chance to see if it can actually develop a market with a lot of potential. If those currently denied escape-clause rumors are true, then Ice Edge gets its pick of relocation markets without lease issues.

Time will tell, but for now, the best way for Phoenix fans to keep their team is to dust off those old Keith Tkachuk jerseys and head to Jobbing.com arena. I hear tickets are pretty affordable too.

Filed in: NHL, | Mike Chen's Hockey Blog | Permalink
  Tags: phoenix+coyotes

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